The Light We Carry Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: The Light We Carry is a set of practices to help you stay calm, optimistic, and confident in an unpredictable world, based on Michelle Obama’s life experiences as a woman, mother, lawyer, daughter, leader, and the former First Lady of the United States.

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Michelle Obama’s father died when she was just 27 years old. The disease was multiple sclerosis, which had slowly eroded his physical and mental functions. Therefore, Obama and her family had long been adapting to her father’s illness — but now, facing this grave loss, a new approach was needed.

How do we “overcome” — not as in “defeat” but as in “persevere” — in times of great fear, anxiety, and stress? From first a cane to then forearm crutches and, eventually, a motorized cart, Obama saw her father rely on whatever tools he needed to “stay upright and balanced.” To live with the uncertainty of when his body would next fail him. Between her humble beginnings on the South Side of Chicago, struggling through law school, and later eight years of being the First Lady of the United States, Obama, too, developed a set of tools to help her maintain her balance, confidence, and move forward even in the toughest of times.

In The Light We Carry, a follow-up to her popular memoir Becoming, Obama shares those tools. The book explains how to overcome fear, nurture your unique gifts, and share those gifts with others. Since fear is “the biggest obstacle to sharing your light,” we thought we’d dig into that part specifically with our 3 lessons:

  1. There are two kinds of fear: protective and restrictive.
  2. Most of the time, fear subtly undermines us instead of stopping us dead.
  3. When fear strikes, breathe, reflect, and plan to keep moving forward.

Want to carry your light no matter how dark the world gets? Let’s learn how!

The Light We Carry Summary

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Lesson 1: Fear can be protective or restrictive, and while one kind helps us, the other keeps us down.

When Barack first told Michelle he wanted to run for president, she was apprehensive. Obama knew her husband would make a great leader, but she loved the life they had created for themselves in Chicago: two daughters, solid careers, and a stable relationship. A presidential campaign would upend all of this.

The debate with her “fearful mind,” as she calls it, raged. Eventually, Obama learned there are two kinds of fear:

  1. Protective fear, which is rational and actually protects you from real threats — like the instinct to crouch down when you hear a suspicious noise in the woods, which might keep you from being eaten by a bear.
  2. Restrictive fear, which is irrational and only limits your potential — like being so afraid you’ll get bad comments on the first article you publish online that you never end up posting it in the first place.

Initially, Obama thought her fear was protective. “I’m protecting the life we have built from public scrutiny, potential reputation damage, and financial jeopardy.”

Eventually, however, she realized her fear was restrictive. She was afraid of change, but she had changed many times in the past — and usually for the better! Becoming a parent, for example, was a scary decision, but in the end, it turned into a positive experience.

Once she better understood her fear, Obama could act in spite of it. She agreed to Barack running for president, and two years later, they made history.

Lesson 2: Fear often sabotages us quietly; it’s rarely outright panic that derails us.

Sometimes, fear is obvious. When you’re applying for your first job out of college, the fear of failure will stare you right in the face. But it’s not only during big life decisions, when we can plainly feel fear affecting us, that this emotion hinders us from fulfilling our potential.

Misunderstanding change is another obstacle to living authentically, Obama suggests, which ultimately boils down to fear.

Let’s say Sarah wants to become a world-famous graffiti artist. She starts documenting her projects through Reels and Stories on Instagram and, within just six months, gains 4,000 followers. That’s huge! But because she keeps looking at Banksy’s Instagram with 12 million followers, she constantly feels so far away from world-fame that she eventually quits.

Fear quietly sabotaged Sarah. Her misunderstanding of change only opened the door for fear to make Sarah feel she is not good enough. Instead of taking pride in what she had achieved, fear got Sarah to focus on her shortcomings and the long road ahead — and that’s what made her failure a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lesson 3: Use the 3-part process of breathing, reflecting, and planning, to handle acute onsets of fear.

To live our best despite our fears, we must first identify them, but since fears are often subtle, that’s easier said than done. From Trump undoing much of what she and Barack had accomplished to the Covid-19 pandemic to George Floyd‘s murder, Obama has had plenty of acute-fear moments in her post-White House career.

In such moments, you can use a three-step method to understand what’s going on, Obama says:

  1. Breathe. A few deep, balanced breaths can make a wealth of difference. The idea is to calm down and gain some distance from your fear so you can think straight.
  2. Reflect. Knowledge is power. Five minutes of thinking about the origins of your discomfort and what it might be trying to tell you will weaken your fear.
  3. Plan. “Emotions are not plans,” Obama says, but with plans we master our emotions. If your fear is protective and real, what precautions can you take in case it comes to pass? If your fear is restrictive and irrational, how will you move forward in spite of it?

My sister has been afraid of fireworks since she was little. But if she wants to fully enjoy the New Year’s celebrations, she can breathe and ask herself where her fear comes from. If she realizes she’s only scared of the noise, not the pyrotechnics, she can wear earplugs, step outside, and marvel at the show.

Fear affects everyone, from babies to millionaires to presidents and first ladies, but if we take it slow, identify our worries, and plan accordingly, nothing can stop us from spreading the light we carry!

The Light We Carry Review

The Light We Carry is more tactical than Becoming, aiming to answer readers’ many follow-up questions and offer more practical tools for finding confidence and grace every day. Obama manages to do both while telling more fascinating stories in her typically candid, humorous yet empathetic style. That makes this a book worth reading for fans and fear-fighters alike!

Who would I recommend our The Light We Carry summary to?

The 17-year-old struggling athlete who gets bullied in high school, the 59-year-old executive who’s afraid of stepping into a less day-to-day, more strategic leadership role, and anyone who thinks Michelle Obama kicks ass.

Last Updated on May 2, 2024

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Niklas Göke

Niklas Göke is an author and writer whose work has attracted tens of millions of readers to date. He is also the founder and CEO of Four Minute Books, a collection of over 1,000 free book summaries teaching readers 3 valuable lessons in just 4 minutes each. Born and raised in Germany, Nik also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration & Engineering from KIT Karlsruhe and a Master’s Degree in Management & Technology from the Technical University of Munich. He lives in Munich and enjoys a great slice of salami pizza almost as much as reading — or writing — the next book — or book summary, of course!